By CARL GREEN
What if there were a candidate for Congress with strong ties to the Labor Movement and deep experience in economic development, who knows southwestern Illinois and wants to make the government serve citizens instead of the big corporations?
Well, we have one, and his name is Ray Lenzi, 73, the Democratic nominee in Illinois’ 12th Congressional District. That district takes in most of the major cities of the Metro-East, including Alton, Belleville, East St. Louis and Granite City, and it was good enough to re-elect Rep. Jerry Costello for years.
In recent years, incumbent Mike Bost (R-Murphysboro) has won in the district by combining dominance in its rural counties with substantial support in the cities. He has become a loyal Trump apologist bankrolled by corporate donations.
Why should this year be any different? Expectations are for a strong Democratic year stemming from Trump’s performance in office. Lenzi is a good candidate, and he has a real chance to win alongside Presidential nominee Joe Biden.
To get to know him better, the Labor Tribune had Lenzi and his campaign manager, Kevin Lister, over to talk about Lenzi’s background, plans, positions and chances in this election. They covered a lot of ground. Here is some of what we talked about.
Lenzi’s Labor bonafides go all the way back to his childhood in Farmington, a small town in a mining region near Peoria. His father was a member of the Operating Engineers, and young Ray learned about the Movement by reading the union’s newsletters. He had three grandfathers who all were United Mineworkers.
“I grew up in a household where the biggest picture was of John L. Lewis on the dining room wall, and there was a smaller picture of Jesus back in the bedroom,” Lenzi recalled. “The union was my father’s religion. He instilled Democratic Party and Labor politics into me at the kitchen table, from the time I could remember having any awareness of politics and Labor issues.”
After high school, young Ray worked summers in a Peabody mine eight miles away at Fairview to earn money for college at SIU-Carbondale.
“At the base pay, we were making almost four times the minimum wage,” he said. “I really appreciated the value of the union, because it put me through college. I just grew up believing in Labor unions.”
Lenzi found his way into academia, teaching economic development and rural development at the University of Missouri. “I would travel throughout the state and do projects with local economic development groups on everything from downtown revitalization to existing business retention and expansion to grant writing – anything that might create jobs.”
He then pursued economic development at SIU-Carbondale in projects that involved manufacturing, marketing, finance and engineering, including:
- SIU Research Park, which he founded and directed and has grown into about 150,000 square feet of buildings with some 500 employees.
- The Illinois Manufacturing Center, a non-profit that has provided tens of millions of dollars in services to Illinois employers.
- Shawnee Wine Trail, a popular organization of southern Illinois vintners that appeals to the tourist trade.
- Head Start, for which Lenzi started two day care centers in Union County that serve the families of migrant farm workers.
Lenzi holds a PhD in geography, a master’s in community development and a bachelor’s in political science.
At SIU-Carbondale until his retirement, he was director of annual giving for the SIU Foundation, and he served on the union bargaining committee when the university’s staff was organized.
TIME FOR CHANGE
Lenzi says he’s running because the nation needs to do better at coping with the future, and today’s leaders in the White House and Senate have only made things worse.
“The country wants change,” he said. “Bost is certainly not the candidate for change, and Trump isn’t either anymore.
“It comes down to what I think is the authentic truth, which is that global warming is real, and we have to get busy on it, and it’s also an opportunity for economic growth.
“Biden is talking about reducing emissions by 50 percent in 10 or 15 years, which is what the Paris Accord targets are. It’s a really aggressive goal, but I think people are increasingly realizing that if we don’t get busy now, we don’t know what kind of world we’re going to end up with.”
Lenzi has no illusions about being able to compete with Bost on campaign spending.
“Clearly, Bost has a big advantage in money,” he said. “It’s a tough environment to try to raise any money right now. We’ve got some unions that have sent us checks and endorsements. We’re definitely going for the pro-Labor vote, given my background and given what I believe about where the economy needs to go.
“We see this race as a race of good, clean government standing with the people and what the people need, versus corrupted politics – corrupted by big corporate donations and dark and dirty money.”
In the case of Bost, Lenzi said, “He votes against the people’s interests and with the big donors and dark and dirty money through Super PACs.”
A special interest lobbying group, supported and funded by Big Pharma, the so-called “Alliance for Patient Access,” is running ads saying it has given Bost its “2020 Champion of Patient Access” award.
The Associated Press reported last year that the “‘Alliance for Patient Access’ gives off a consumer-friendly vibe but is bankrolled by the powerful pharmaceutical industry.”
“We’re running on a campaign of ‘Let’s end the corruption, end the failure of government and move forward to progressive policies that serve the people,’” Lenzi said. “That’s our number one, over-arching theme.”
CAN HE WIN?
In the southern Illinois region, Trump’s support has dropped by 12 percentage points compared to how he did against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Lenzi showed some real strength in the primary in the district’s rural counties, winning by 2-1 margins, and 3-1 in his familiar Carbondale region.
Campaign Manager Kevin Lister, a former American Cancer Society campaign coordinator and a longtime friend from Carbondale, said Lenzi’s hard work and early start also helped him win the primary, over-promising young opponent Joel Funk of St. Clair County.
“The reason we won Madison County is that we worked hard up here,” Lister said. “We busted our tails. We were out at the steel plant when it was absolutely freezing. People think we got lucky, but luck happens when you work really hard.”
With coronavirus and economic fallout of the pandemic dominating the immediate future, Lenzi wants to address job losses, income inequality and the loss of union membership as a percentage of the labor force.
“If Biden wins big, and Democrats can take the Senate, there is the opportunity for some 1933-type legislation,” he said. “We haven’t had a major infrastructure bill in this country since the late ’80s. We’re overdue for everything from highways and airports to bridges. If you look at Biden’s latest plan on clean energy, he’s talking about $2 trillion over four years in direct spending and tax credit programs that will accelerate the build-out of renewable energy in this country, which if you believe climate change is real, is a necessity.”
Issues Lenzi supports
Ray Lenzi is a jobs and Labor candidate. Among the issues he supports are:
- A just transition for energy workers – including a 50 percent tax credit for future wages of energy workers who lose jobs, to guarantee current wages going forward and first dibs on new energy jobs.
- A $15 national minimum wage.
- A clearer path to Labor organizing with less interference by owners, including the much-needed 51 percent rule. “If 51 percent sign union cards, then a union is established,” Lenzi said. “Let the workers speak for themselves, and let that stand without the threats and interference.”
- Renewable energy sources. “We have to do it,” he said, “It’s an opportunity to create literally tens of millions of jobs in this country.”